55.3 mi / 10.1 mph / 2426 ft. climbing
Home: Carter Creek hiker/biker campsite
Today we restart bicycle travel, heading east from the Seattle area towards Idaho.
Way back in September, two weeks before we stopped riding, we booked a VRBO apartment near the center of Seattle for January 3rd to April 11th (in between, we would spend two months staying with Rett’s dad in upstate New York, and December with my parents in the Chicago area). When mid-April rolled around, we needed a couple more weeks to take care of business in Seattle, so we extended there until the end of April. When the end of April rolled around we still needed more time in Washington, and really wanted to get our cycling capabilities in prime shape before leaving a home base behind, so we moved out to Monroe for a month, 40 miles northeast of Seattle.
Monroe is a town at the north end of the Snoqualmie Valley, a place we’d been through many times on rides from our home in Redmond, pre-nomadacy. So we knew the riding there was world-class.
During that month, Rett completed her amazing metamorphosis, from a caterpillar fearing to lift her feet from the ground, to a butterfly happily flying down hills, on gravel trails(!), sometimes with no hands (!!!… something she’s never done before!) So for the first time in nearly a year, she was genuinely excited to restart bike touring.
Most of the credit for that transformation goes to her own hard work on her mental and emotional health, but a small part goes to the pastoral country roads of the Snoqualmie and Skykomish Valleys, filled with cows, horses, goats, alpacas, and probably a dozen other types of domesticated animals. In another sign of her cycling comfort, Rett would look at all these animals (and everything else surrounding us), even when climbing 13% grades. Last September, her eyes were as glued to the road in front of her as her hands were to her grips, so it was a joy for me to see that tunnel-vision widen back into the world-exploring view that drew us to this lifestyle in the first place.
So the first half of our day would have us heading south on familiar roads up the Snoqualmie Valley, an unprecedented and incredible bit of land-use planning unique to Seattle. This strip of genuine farmland, which feels every bit like family farm country of rural central Wisconsin (except surrounded by snow-capped mountains!) extends roughly from Monroe to Fall City, both of which are improbably close to Amazon and Starbucks’ headquarters (and even closer to Microsoft’s headquarters). If Seattle was Chicago, the equivalent location would be the I-290/I-355 corridor, or, Buffalo Grove to Downers Grove, an area with a distinct lack of buffalos, or groves.
But here, it’s been designated an Agricultural Preservation District, which prevents it from being overtaken by suburban sprawl. And in fact, there really isn’t any sprawl beyond it either, as the Cascades begin rising before you’d get to Naperville.
And so the start of our restart was comfortable, familiar, and beautiful. Well, ironically it was probably the worst day of weather we’d had in a month. Cloudy, a light morning mist, and temperatures not set to break 60F. A tailwind though, so overall quite pleasant.
When we reached Carnation (yes, named for the milk-products company), we got onto the Snoqualmie Valley Trail, a gravel rail-trail that slowly rises up the shoulder of the foothills to get its climb over Snoqualmie Pass started as early as possible. Previously we had taken the gorgeous farm roads through this section, but Rett’s newfound comfort on gravel (aided by her new Schwalbe Marathon Efficiency 700x40C tires) had us prefering the slow but steady gravel climb. Unfortunately that meant that we had some unexpected trouble navigating through Snoqualmie and North Bend vs. the familiar road route (the sudden end of the trail at Tokul Tunnel, then a bridge back to the trail made useless by the 30 stairs we’d need to drag our 100+ lb. bikes up), but Rett’s frustation level stayed lower than normal and quickly faded.
When we got near Rattlesnake Lake (part of a 6-mile switchback that would continue taking us up at a much shallower grade than taking a direct route up the shoulder of I-90), the Snoqualmie Valley Trail connected awkwardly (through turns, and non-railroad steep bits) to the Palouse to Cascades Trail, which would take us fully over the Cascades and, if we wanted (and were far more off-road capable), to the Idaho border (we don’t want to). I’d read enough to know (hope?) that the once-rough gravel surface has been tamped down enough over the last several years to make it passable for us, but it was a risk into uncharted territory, especially with no real knowledge of what Rett’s current limits might be.
The surface definitely got rougher than the Snoqualmie Valley Trail had been (which itself is somewhat rougher than the packed limestone screenings of the rail-trails of Wisconsin I grew up on). We struggled uphill for a couple miles, my heavy handlebar bag slamming up and down with each bump, until I convinced Rett (and really, convinced myself) to let me try lowering our tire pressures. As someone who has generally avoided gravel (because I’m willing to deal with the traffic on almost any paved road in exchange for higher speed), it’s taken a lot to get me off my old-school “max pressure is always fastest!” belief. I lowered our tires from an already-low-to-me ~50psi to ~30psi.
Turns out it was an unlucky spot to do the experiment, because that’s the exact place where the trail got smooth again. Darn it. Except…after several miles, where the trail continued to vary quite a bit in character visually, my handlebar bag never got to bouncing around again. It was the lower pressure smoothing things out after all!
Even with that huge help, it was still a long-ass day, and by 50 miles, and 2000 feet up from our starting elevation Rett had had enough (not to mention the bumping and mild-but-unending 1.5% incline). So instead of the Carter Creek campsite a few miles further, we decided to stop at Alice Creek, another trailside camping area. There was another cyclist already set up in one of the several sites, but he helpfully pointed out the 2nd-best one for us, and we set our bikes down there, happy to be done. Then Rett remembered that we’d been counting on the creek at Carter for water, and despite the name (and Google reviews), the closest Alice Creek Campsite came to water was when Alice Creek flowed 50 ft. under a bridge a quarter mile back. After some exhausted hemming and hawing, Rett dug deep and cobbled a last dollop of strength together from bits of residue left deep inside, and said let’s push on another 2.8 uphill miles to Carter Creek.
There, instead of a line of tent pads right along the trail (which was nearly deserted late on a weekday so it wouldn’t have been a big deal), the tent pads ran along the sides of the roaring and tumbing Carter Creek, perpendicular to the trail. No one else was there, so we had the choice of the (surprising) ~8 tent pads to ourselves. We took the one closest to the roar.
Rett had been wise enough to know that we should go simple with dinner on such a long day ending at a primitive campsite (vault toilet only, no running water, pack out your own trash), and the still-cold frozen chicken sausages and gnocchi from Trader Joe’s simply hit the spot. With whiskey cocktails in our hands, our new EVA-foam sit-pad/yoga-mat/blanket (doing all those jobs better than we could have expected), and no other humans within miles of our $12 mountain home for the night, it was a great end to a long “first” day. We were both proud at what we’d accomplished not just on the day, but in the restoration that made the day achievable when it would have seemed utterly unthinkable 7 months ago.
And relative to Chicago, we were approximately in Aurora. No offense to Aurora, but this sure ain’t Aurora!